Ohio State became the first non-conference champion to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff, where they’ll square off with Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night. The Buckeyes were able to solidify their playoff spot with a dramatic victory in double overtime last month against Michigan. Ohio State rallied from a 10-point second half deficit to force overtime. The Wolverines and Buckeyes traded touchdowns in the first overtime period before a Curtis Samuel 15-yard run gave Ohio State their fifth consecutive win over their rival. The win allowed Ohio State to improve to 10-2 under Urban Meyer in games where they trailed at halftime.
The Ohio State head coach has just five losses during his five years in Columbus, with one of those losses coming to Clemson in the 2014 Orange Bowl. Ohio State held a nine-point lead in the second half against Clemson, but in the end Sammy Watkins and the Tigers were just too much for the Buckeyes to hold at bay. Watkins was named Orange Bowl MVP for his performance, as he caught 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns. The Buckeyes and Tigers had met one other time prior to the 2014 Orange Bowl, with Clemson squeezing by Ohio State 17-15 in the infamous 1978 Gator Bowl, where Woody Hayes punched Clemson’s Charlie Bauman.
After losing a big chunk of last year’s starters to the NFL, Ohio State entered this year with just six returning starters, which was fewest among FBS teams. The Buckeyes got off to a hot start this year, handling a road test against Oklahoma in the third week of the season. Ohio State went through the first six games of the season unscathed before blowing a fourth quarter lead to Penn State in State College. The Buckeyes took care of business in the final five games of the season, and the College Football Playoff committee felt Ohio State’s resumé was worthy of being a part of the four-team playoff.
Much like Ohio State, Clemson survived an upset by a team from Pennsylvania but still did enough in the eyes of the committee to be a part of the third College Football Playoff. The Tigers opened the season with a road win at Auburn, and added wins over Louisville and Florida State during the regular season before thwarting Virginia Tech’s upset attempt in the ACC Championship Game. Now after making it to last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game and falling to Alabama, Clemson has unfinished business as they try to take home this year’s title.
How to watch, stream, and listen
TV: 7 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN. The announcers are Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Samantha Ponder
Online streaming: WatchESPN
Spread: Ohio State opened as a 3-point favorite. The line’s stayed pretty static with OSU as much as a 3.5-point favorite at a few books.
Know your enemy: SB Nation’s Shakin’ The Southland covers the Tigers.
Ohio State’s biggest advantages
Defensive mindset. It’s hard to single out a part of the Ohio State defense which has performed better than the others this year since all three levels have played exceptionally well. The defensive line has created the pressure needed to allow the linebackers and defensive backs the opportunities to make some plays and create some turnovers. Ohio State is second in the nation with seven defensive touchdowns, with three of those coming from Malik Hooker.
The Ohio State secondary faced many questions coming into this year after losing Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, and Tyvis Powell from last year’s squad. The defensive backs who were tabbed to replace the trio have exceeded all expectations this year. For his performance during the year, Hooker was named a unanimous All-American. It wasn’t just Hooker who carried the load for the Ohio State secondary this year, as Gareon Conley consistently made big plays for the Buckeyes when they were needed.
Clemson’s defensive line gets a lot of publicity for their play this year, but Ohio State’s defensive line is just as talented. After Joey Bosa won Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year the last two seasons, Tyquan Lewis followed in Bosa’s footsteps and took home the award this year. Joey’s brother Nick Bosa had a productive first season in Columbus, getting five sacks in the regular season.
Where the Buckeyes are at their best is when they are able to force their opponents into obvious passing downs and they can unleash their “Rushmen” package to create pressure in the backfield. The extra pressure allows the linebackers and defensive backs a greater chance to force a turnover, and with Deshaun Watson having thrown 15 interceptions this year, the Buckeyes will do everything they can to get the “Rushmen” package out onto the field.
Urban intelligence. Urban Meyer will be looking to improve on an impressive 10-2 record in bowl games in his head coaching career. The only time Meyer has suffered a loss at Ohio State in a bowl game came in the 2014 Orange Bowl against Dabo Swinney’s Clemson team. In fact, Meyer is 45-3 with more than a week to prepare for his opponent, but that loss to Clemson is one of the three losses Meyer has suffered during extra time.
The brighter the stage, the better the result for Meyer’s teams. In the last 10 games against Top 10 teams, Meyer has won seven of his last eight games. Overall, Meyer is 19-6 against Top 10 competition, and 8-3 while he has been at Ohio State against teams ranked in the Top 10.
The last time against Clemson, Ohio State was coming off a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, and didn’t have a lot of motivation. In this meeting motivation won’t be a factor at all since both teams will be doing everything in their power to make sure they can move on to face the winner of Alabama and Washington. There will also be a little bit of a revenge on Meyer’s mind since there aren’t many coaches who can say they hold a winning record against Meyer, but Swinney is one of those coaches.
Ground warfare. When it’s clicking, Ohio State’s rushing attack is among the best in the country. The Buckeyes averaged 258 yards per game on the ground, which ranks ninth in the country. The success Ohio State has rushing the football also allows for the Buckeyes to keep the ball out of their opponents hands, with the 33:55 Ohio State averages in time of possession ranking fifth in the country.
Many thought it might be a bit of a rocky transition at running back after Ezekiel Elliott left for the NFL, but redshirt freshman Mike Weber quickly quieted any doubts. The redshirt freshman became just the third freshman running back to rush for over 1,000 yards, with the other two backs being Robert Smith and Maurice Clarett.
While Weber brings the power in the running game, h-back Curtis Samuel brings the home-run capability. This year Samuel averaged 7.7 yards per carry and he scored eight rushing touchdowns. What has been a criticism of the Ohio State offense is they don’t get the ball to Samuel enough, with the junior averaging just eight carries per game. Whether it be rushing or in the passing game, when Samuel gets the ball he makes his touches count.
Clemson’s biggest advantages
Orange crush. If Ohio State’s offensive line plays anything like they did against Michigan, it could be a long night for the Buckeyes in the desert. Clemson’s defense posted 46 sacks and 112 tackles for loss this year, with both ranking third in the country. What makes the Clemson defense tick is the pressure that their defensive line is able to create, which has forced their opponents into mistakes throughout the year.
All four of Clemson’s defensive linemen have been impressive throughout the year, with each of the four registering at least five sacks on the season. Defensive tackle Carlos Watkins leads the defense with 8.5 sacks, which were the most sacks by a Clemson defensive tackle since 1990. Watkins may be a senior, but the future is still bright at defensive tackle for the Tigers, as freshman Dexter Lawrence was named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year after racking up seven sacks in his first year with the Tigers.
At defensive end, Christian Wilkins will grab most of the headlines after being credited with 12 tackles for loss this year and being named one of the finalists for the Nagurski Award. With all the talent Clemson has on the defensive line, Ohio State can’t sleep on the other defensive end Clelin Ferrell, who had five sacks during the season.
The pressure Clemson’s defensive line creates could leave things looking a lot like how most of the Michigan game did for Ohio State. With the Buckeyes still struggling to have some of their wide receivers step up, backfield pressure could give Ohio State fits when they try to execute the run-pass option, which has been their bread and butter all year long. The Buckeyes will not only need the veteran leadership of Pat Elflein and Billy Price on the offensive line to rub off on linemen like Isaiah Prince, since all five Ohio State linemen will have to be at the top of their game on Saturday night.
Deshaun the great. There were some who thought this was a down year for Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson this year compared to the numbers he put up last year. In terms of passing the ball, Watson’s numbers were almost the same as they were last year. Last year as a sophomore, Watson completed 67.8% of his passes for 4,104 yards, 35 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. This year Watson completed 67.6% of his passes for 3,914 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions.
Where critics might have perceived a fall-off from Watson is when it comes to running the football. Last year Watson ran the ball 207 times for 1,105 yards and 12 touchdowns, as opposed to the 529 yards and six touchdowns Watson gained on 129 carries this year. Clemson just didn’t ask Watson to do as much this year on the ground as he did last year, which actually could help Watson in the Fiesta Bowl and beyond since he didn’t take as much punishment this year, which could leave him fresher for later in the season.
There are plenty of similarities between Watson and Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, with both being able to beat you on the ground, as well as through the air, with Watson having an even better arm than Barrett. All both quarterbacks do is win, with Watson posting a 26-2 record at Clemson over the past two seasons. Watson will be the most versatile quarterback Ohio State has had to prepare for all year, and his ability to do just about everything for the Tigers on offense will be a tough challenge for one of the nation’s best defenses.
Pitch and catch. Ohio State has to be happy that they don’t have to try and cover Sammy Watkins like they did in the 2014 Orange Bowl, but that doesn’t mean that Clemson doesn’t have a talented group of receivers that could give Ohio State fits. Mike Williams came back from a neck injury he suffered early last year to haul in 84 passes for 1,171 yards, and 10 touchdowns. The junior wide receiver made some highlight reel catches throughout the season, and it’ll likely take the efforts of the whole secondary to slow down Williams.
The Buckeyes can’t just focus all their resources on Williams though, because Watson has a number of other options he is comfortable with getting the football to. For the second year in a row, tight end Jordan Leggett was a finalist for the Mackey Award, given annually to the country’s best tight end. Leggett nearly matched his output from last year despite playing sparingly early in the year due to injury.
Aside from what Williams brings to the table, Deon Cain might just be Clemson’s best big-play threat, as evidenced by his team-leading 19.4 yards per catch average. Artavis Scott is one of Watson’s most trusted targets, who the quarterback always seems to find in key moments. Add in Ray-Ray McCloud and Hunter Renfrow in the passing game, and the Ohio State secondary will certainly have their hands full throughout the game as they try to keep Watson and his targets in check.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 29, Clemson 25
Win Probability: Ohio State, 61.2%
Much like Ohio State’s most recent outing against Michigan, the Fiesta Bowl could go down as a classic. Both teams are stacked with talent on both sides of the football. You couldn’t ask for a better quarterback matchup than we’ll get with J.T. Barrett and Deshaun Watson in Glendale.
This game will probably be a back-and-forth affair that doesn’t see either team lead by more than a touchdown. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Ohio State try and get Curtis Samuel involved a little earlier in the game to see if the junior can break some big plays against a Clemson defense that holes can be found against. No matter the result, watching this game is a great way to spend the last few hours of 2016.